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Managing Hybrid Teams: How to Keep Your Team Engaged and Productive

by Gábor Zöld
/ April 28, 2021
Ellen Wong hybrid team cover

Managing Hybrid Teams: How to Keep Your Team Engaged and Productive - Interview with Ellen Wong, Director of Engineering, Calm

Hybrid teams have become the new normal. Running a hybrid team poses new challenges you have never had to deal with in the office.

What should you prioritize as a leader when managing hybrid teams?

How do you overcome these challenges?

You get answers to these questions from Ellen Wong, Director of Engineering at Calm. She shares her leadership experience about running hybrid teams and tells stories about what she’s learned along the way. Interview by Karolina Toth in episode 40 of the Level-up Engineering podcast.

In this post we cover:

How do you define a hybrid team?

Currently, we have a subset of our team working in a certain location. Some of our remote employees intend to go back to working in the office in person when the pandemic is under control, while others plan to stay remotely. This is what I consider a hybrid team.

We often call hybrid teams the new way of work.

Calm used to be an office-based startup culture in San Francisco and became a remote-first company from one day to the next. The reactions were all over the place. Many employees prefer working in an office environment, while others are excited about the possibility of working from anywhere.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of working with a fully remote team?

The possibility of going fully remote caused different reactions in different people. Some of them were excited about being rid of the daily commute, but others were sad about losing personal interactions.

This is the trade-off. You gain some flexibility by saving some time, but you lose the in-person communication and the part of your engineering culture that’s based on the natural chemistry between people.

Remote work requires a shift in expectations.

Calm's organizational decision making was built around in-person discussions in person. Being forced into working fully remotely added worries and anxiety to both the management team and the individual contributors. We weren’t sure how it would affect the daily work and whether we could still deliver like we’re used to.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of working with a hybrid team?

I’ve had experience working with a hybrid team before the pandemic, at Periscope Data. Originally, their culture favored in-person interactions. Whiteboarding in the office was a common practice.

At one point, one of our most valuable engineers moved across the country, and we wanted to continue working with him. He moved into a different time zone on top of that, making it even more of a challenge. This forced us to make the hybrid team work.

It became a success, but it took effort from the whole team, including the office workers and the remote employee.

It came with inconveniences. We moved the Scrum meeting from a favorable 11:00 AM to 09:00 AM to accommodate the coworker in a different time zone. We changed random whiteboarding sessions in the office, made sure to document them, and used tools in which we could include the remote engineer.

Making these adjustments took work and it increased friction in the daily interactions. It was still worth it because we got to keep working with one of our best colleagues.

What are the challenges for leaders managing hybrid teams?

Balancing different needs

I was nervous when I first found myself managing a hybrid team. This was before the pandemic, and I didn’t know how to make it work. It's the leader’s job is to integrate remote engineers, and to keep up team happiness and engineering productivity.

You have to consider these trade-offs:

  • Do you have ad-hoc discussions without the remote employees, or do you wait for them?
  • Are the processes/tools you use to include remote workers an extra burden for the office team?
  • How much inclusion is too much?

The manager can’t make all the decisions; this has to be a team effort, so I went to the team and asked, “Hey, how do we make this work?” It was a part of the company culture that everyone felt like a part of the community. I focused on getting the team to commit to making the hybrid model work.

Lay down the ground rules

We started with daily remote meetings and updates. The potential solutions include meeting synchronously with the remote engineer joining online, or using an asynchronous tool for updates like Slack.

The common communication challenges are either the remote engineer being blocked or someone else needing their help when they’re not available. We established the rules of engagement for a hybrid team anticipating these issues and proactively coming up with solutions. Once it was ready, we kept iterating on it.

You can’t create a perfect solution; every team is different. The point is to get together, consider everybody’s needs on the team, come up with your own rules, and keep iterating on them. Avoid over-engineering your processes; it can get counter-productive.

How do you prepare your employees to work in a hybrid team?

I joined Calm remotely, and I’ve hired the majority of my team for remote work. My previous company was focused on working from the office, so we chose carefully who we allowed to work remotely. We came up with certain criteria, which I use when hiring for my hybrid team.

Necessary qualities for hybrid team members

  • Inclusivity and kindness
  • Good communication skills
  • Proactivity
  • Openness to feedback

You can look for these qualities in your interview.

You need clear communication in a hybrid team. If they have issues conveying their points, and you have to keep asking follow-up questions, they may not be a good fit for remote work.

Proactivity is essential in a remote setting. You can’t rely on organic interactions to solve issues, and you need people to find ways to make things work regardless.

Handling feedback is just as important. You can’t avoid some miscommunication and misalignment in a hybrid team. Every team member needs to be ready to course-correct and receive more feedback than they’re used to.

Work on your hiring process to find the right people and set your hybrid team up for success.

Set explicit expectations

Once you have your team, you need to set the rules of engagement.

For example, you hire inclusive people, but you still need to define what it means to be inclusive within the team. Less than inclusive behaviors hurt productivity.

If one of your team members isn’t willing to act out your values, you need to give that person feedback. Usually, the issue is a lack of context. They may not realize that sharing a document a couple of hours later needlessly blocks someone else for hours.

Leaders need to specify the right behaviors, and continuously communicate why they’re necessary beyond being tagged inclusive. This impacts team happiness and productivity. The right people with the right management will do the right thing.

Before the pandemic these expectations were “nice to have,” but they became “must have” qualities in the hybrid world. Even the best software engineer can work on the wrong thing and not add value to the business.

Some engineers don’t naturally have the curiosity to learn about every detail, but they need to make sure to contribute to the business needs; otherwise, they aren’t going to be successful. There are more opportunities to course-correct when working in an office. Remote work makes this mindset essential.

Business sense is another key skill. It’s about focusing on the outcome and working to move the business forward, rather than doing the work for fun. Ideally, your engineers align themselves with the business needs and let that guide their focus to build the right things.

You can’t take these qualities for granted. These may be growth areas for engineers who haven’t picked up these skills yet. Implementing these values will help your hybrid team become successful.

How do you support your team differently in a remote environment?

When I first switched a team to a hybrid model, no one knew what would happen to productivity. I found myself in need of continuously reminding my teams of the success they’d achieved because they tended to be too hard on themselves.

Document goals

There is an increased need to communicate and keep team members aligned because it’s harder to spot if something is going in the wrong direction and course correct. My solution is to create more documentation about the team’s priorities and goals. It’s an alternative to the day-to-day interaction.

At the beginning of 2021, we got together to create a strategy document and a roadmap to align our realities. We all need to be on the same page about what we’re doing and how we’re doing. The document specifies areas for improvement and focus points for the team.

Onboarding remotely

All my teams have been hiring engineers, and we’ve learned that remote onboarding requires a new approach.

A newly hired remote employee is in a different situation than an employee switching to remote work who had been working with the company for years. New hires lack the context about what are the things that they don’t know.

Remote onboarding often looks like you’re getting a bigger information dump than you can handle in one minute. The next minute, you’re sitting alone in your room and you lack a necessary piece of information. The challenge is creating a safe space for them and a sustainable way to onboard remote engineers.

We have detailed 30-, 60-, and 90-day plans for new hires. This has always been a good practice, and it became essential for hybrid teams. Set up clear goals for them in these plans to learn essential information like:

  • Documents to read
  • Meetings to attend
  • People to meet
  • In-depth context

1. Track them closely

In the first weeks, they need frequent check-ins with their manager to track their onboarding.

2. Provide quick wins

Give them tasks they can tackle in the beginning. This provides them with quick wins and a taste of what achievement feels like.

3. Appoint an onboarding buddy

Pair them up with a dedicated onboarding buddy, so they have a dedicated go-to person with any question.

4. Create a safe space

Create a safe space by giving each new hire a dedicated Slack channel with their name on it. We add their immediate team members and their onboarding buddy, then post it in another channel so anyone else can join if they want to help out the new hire. We keep it personal; there are no more than 10 people in this channel.

It’s a two-way channel, where they can ask anything, and people can also check in on them.

Do you anticipate switching back to working exclusively on-site?

Calm plans to stay with hybrid teams

As engineering managers and leaders we’ve talked about this a lot. Calm plans to keep the office in San Francisco, so when the pandemic gets under control, our employees have the option to go back to working on-site. We plan to keep this optional however and to hold on to the hybrid team model.

Most people on my team said they would go to the office about half the time, or a couple of days each week. We want to give them the flexibility to go to the office or to work remotely depending on their preferences.

The pandemic is still going on, but going from working in-person to working with a hybrid team went more smoothly than I expected. This shows that our processes work, and it gives me confidence that we can handle a switch to spending more time in the office as well.

Good processes solve the hybrid challenge

Our mechanisms do a good job at surfacing misalignment and other issues, so we can lean on the team to solve the problems as they come up. The challenge is making sure not to allow any problem to go unnoticed for a long time.

Retro meetings

We hold retro meetings at the end of every sprint. Every team uses retrospectives to discuss what should be improved going forward, and what has been frustrating recently.

Culture surveys

We have a quarterly culture amp survey, asking everyone in the company to tell us what is working, and what isn’t going well. The leaders are accountable to go through the results and make changes to help the teams continue to be successful.

What are the most important skills of an engineering leader when running hybrid teams?

Handling conflicts

There are conflicts on a hybrid team more frequently, and some of them wouldn’t happen in an on-site team. These are usually caused by missing context, misalignment, misunderstandings, or a conflict in communication styles. These conflicts often come out during retros, where people talk about their frustrations, and in one-on-one meetings where your reports may tell you what bothers them.

Everyone is experiencing this.

The most important rule is to assume the best intentions. Humans are prone to looking at a set of facts or a scenario and cooking up a story about being disrespected. Usually, there is no malicious intent behind these events, others just didn’t know how it would land.

My advice in this situation is to have the employee that brings it up to you walk down the path of “If that person has a good intention, why do you think this happened?” If they can’t figure it out, encourage them to ask the other person. This makes the people in conflict talk to each other, so the leader doesn’t have to play the messenger.

This often resolves the conflict, because they’re usually not big problems. When it comes to bigger issues, like misalignment with leadership about priorities, or unkind behaviour without the willingness to find a solution, the leadership team has to make the tough decisions. If you want your team to act in a certain way, you need to enforce those rules when individuals are crossing the line.

Ask yourself the questions:

  • Do you want this to be a recurring issue?
  • Are you okay with telling your team to put up with it?

How do you keep the community aspect alive in a hybrid team?

Provide flexibility

At the beginning of the pandemic, we expected it to be over in a few months and told everyone to turn their camera on in every meeting. People send each other a lot of visual signals, and we have pushed hard to hold onto the engagement. A year has passed since then, and we’ve all learned that Zoom fatigue is real.

Now, we’re more relaxed around these expectations. We still prefer using the camera in meetings, but we’re more understanding if some people don’t want to turn it on. Turning at least your self-view off can make it easier for you.

As long as we have productive remote meetings, it’s better to provide employees with options. If everyone stops using their cameras, and we lose engagement, we’ll tell everyone to turn it on. Otherwise, flexibility is a better choice.

Improve preparation for meetings

We want to create an environment where meetings are productive; otherwise, they’re a waste of time.

Currently, most meetings require a written agenda. Another rule is that ending a meeting early is okay if you’ve discussed everything. We encourage people to decline meetings if they don’t think they can add anything to them.

We enforce these rules for higher productivity, but people pick them up quickly because no one wants to stay on Zoom longer than necessary.

Channels for social interaction

We mimic organic interactions creating a fun channel. It’s for social interactions, like sharing pictures about kids, pets, and showing a version of themselves. Using the social channel is optional; we don’t enforce it in any way.

Bonus advice for managing hybrid teams

Gel your teams

We have a method for gelling teams we call “Storming, Norming, Forming, and Performing.” It takes some time, interaction, and projects for people to learn to work together well and build trust among each other. When you have new members, make an extra effort to bond the team.

You may give a new team member and an existing team member a project to work together. A more challenging task is even more likely to gel them. Leaders need to look for signs that the team has gelled:

  • Do they have conflicts?
  • Do they deliver on time?

Feedback has to be explicit

It’s more difficult to build a good feedback culture for a hybrid team. Based on the culture amp survey, we scored lower in this department than in previous years.

The issue may be that if someone does something good in person, they get a smile, a high-five, or a shout-out. This doesn’t happen when you work remotely.

You can start improving this by creating shout-out channels for your teams. This gives a go-to platform for them to recognize each other, whether it’s about being nice or doing great work. This provides the team some good vibes.

About Ellen Wong

Ellen Wong is currently Director of Engineering at Calm. She’s leading the B2B engineering team, the data engineering team, and the product platform team.

Earlier in her career, she used to work on mobile applications, machine learning applications, and data-intensive applications.

She’s passionate about engineering leadership and building productive and happy teams by coaching the next generation of leaders.

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